Learning to love archi-torture

They file in with coffee, this Wednesday night. With Starbucks cupholders and Atticus bags. With laptops and headphones, stopping to check out viciously markered posters and notes from TAs. Corner of York and Chapel, up seven flights, past the grad students with their balsa wood and foam core, through The Pit, now a museum encasing posters recently rendered obsolete by a professor’s criticism.

By 10 p.m., a half dozen senior architecture majors are in the undergraduate studio of the A&A building, clustered, mostly, around open RhinoCAD windows at a computer terminal.

Before 2 p.m. the next day, one or two more will have trickled in.

At 2 p.m. the next day, Steven Harris, architecture professor and senior design studio leader, will collect their disks, each with a 24×36-inch poster, formatted and oriented correctly, and FedEx them to California.

It is the last night of the senior design studio, a project for which these Yalies have traveled to the West Coast — “not California like beaches and palm trees,” Adrian Coleman ’06 clarifies, “California like a shithole off Route 99″ — and interviewed truckers, researched alternative energy and fudged their way through funding applications. This senior project — to design a “green” rest stop for an architecture competition — has absorbed nearly every waking hour of every senior architecture major in the design track for days now.

“It is judgment day, my friend!” Tory Wolcott ’06 says, glassy eyes fixed to PC screen, covering the remaining white in her rendering with asphalt texture, all autopilot fingers and caffeine-twitch knees.

“This is bad,” Coleman says, glancing back at the sheaf of paintings covering his work bench, empty Red Bull as a paperweight. “I’m tired, and it’s only 10:30.”

“I want to jump off this building,” Frances Edelman ’06 says.

They laugh. Tiredly.



Marketable but masochistic?

Yesterday, the seniors effectively graduated, dropping off images perfected with a semester’s worth of late nights and a locker’s worth of bent up models, having worked, if not 24 hours straight, then 24 hours minus a nap and a hot shower. And three weeks from now, a new crop of masochists will vie to hunch over the same computers in the same concrete bunker, as the Class of 2008 submits its portfolios for admission to the architecture major.

Why? Why change your lifestyle, your schedule and even your friendships in a way that no other major would expect you to?

The architecture major is caught somewhere in the no man’s land between the School of Architecture, which funds the major, and Yale College, which supplies the warm bodies to complete it. It’s an odd major for Yale to offer: Harvard, for instance, doesn’t do it — Cantabs don’t believe in letting their undergraduates major in anything offered at their professional schools, according to Geri Nederhoff, director of admissions for the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Undergraduate architecture programs are typically five-year, licensing Bachelor of Architecture programs. Can a discipline as pre-professional, marketable and, yes, practical as the architecture major ever fit comfortably into Yale’s much-touted liberal arts framework?



Truck-stop schemes

The undergraduate section of the seventh floor of the Art & Architecture building is something of a symbolist’s wet dream. Crammed like a catty-corner afterthought into a graduate studio, the 50 desks, one for each junior and senior in the architecture major, look like 50 neatly arrayed landfills from afar. Under each desk is what Wolcott calls the model graveyard: Skeletal remnants of toothpick dioramas, expired cardboard buildings with roofs trampled underfoot, little fossilized cutouts of human figures, used for scale’s sake in all models.

And unfurling his own rest stop designs — painted, because he was almost an art major, and depicting a building made of shredded tires, because an artificial topography ought to be derived from the refuse of what it’s contouring — Coleman surveys the studio.

“The strength of the Yale architecture program is not our technical skills,” he said. “Yale teaches you how to think outside the box. Our strength is how outlandish all these projects are.”

The Yale students’ entries have historically been strong: Last year, when his seniors entered a competition to design a pedestrian border crossing between Texas and Mexico, three out of the top six prizes went to Yalies, Harris said.

And this year, they certainly are outlandish. One project projects the rest stop onto the sides of moving trucks; another is inspired by trucker sex. Wolcott overlaid the surrounding agricultural region onto her rest stop, blending the agricultural and automotive. Edelman had reeds filtering the water in her rest stop, so that 18-wheelers could be framed by natural cleansing processes.



Classmates and kegstands

Yale’s architecture majors are, across the board, hip. There is a high density of emo glasses and blazers and skinny pants in the A&A building. They are (ironically) unspeakably eloquent, waxing lyrical about form and function. They are fond of coffee: Within one block of the A&A building, there are four coffee shops, at least two of which are effectively kept alive by A&A business.

Hoping to join their ranks are the sophomore neophytes, such as Alexander Sassaroli ’08 and Alexander Newman-Wise ’08. Newman-Wise said the architecture major “feels more authentic”; his design project for “Intro. to Architecture,” one of three prerequisites to applying for the major, was a lampshade, which absorbed more of his energy than any other assignment he’s ever done. Sassaroli liked that he was forced to come up with a completely different way of thinking about each project.

The application process is competitive, but the applicant pool tends to be self-selecting, students said. Director of Undergraduate Studies Sophia Gruzdys would not comment on the major’s selectivity, since it varies from year to year. But last year, architecture major Henry Chan ’07 said, almost everyone who wanted to be in the major wound up in it, though they could not always choose the track within the major — design, history and theory, or urban planning — they wanted.

Applicants and majors alike agree that the communal spirit of the tiny program — spending 50 hours a week in the same building as all your classmates, 6 on 7 (6 p.m. on the seventh floor) kegstands with TAs, days-long road trips with a senior faculty member — is its primary attraction.



Everything but architecture

A line from Saul Steinberg, illustrator and architecture school graduate, courtesy of Deborah Gans, who teaches both Yale’s junior design studio and at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture: “Architecture is the best education for everything but architecture.” By that, Gans said, Steinberg meant that being an architect is like learning to drive: The learning that matters takes place after you get your license to hit the road.

Though Gruzdys insists that the difference between a B.Arch. and a B.A. only matters for “the first 10 years” and that it’s “the next 30 that count,” there is a measurable difference between the two types of degree. As an undergraduate at Cooper Union, for instance, Sean Khorsandi ARCH ’06, an architecture TA, was exposed to around 15 times as much studio time as Yale students are.

But if Yale is failing to adequately prepare would-be Roarks for the real world, it’s not exactly clear how or why.

One of Khorsandi’s gripes with Yale architecture, for instance, is that students learn to go from concept to CAD (computer-assisted design) to cutter with little in between. In the time crunch, something is lost.

Dean Robert Stern makes a point of taking architecture students out for hors d’oeuvres, for a meal at the Union League or for a drink at his loft. The point, besides building community?

“The business happens on napkins or on the flip sides of menus,” Khorsandi said. “It’s important to be able to sketch your thoughts with a few clean lines, without having to pull out blueprints.”

Coleman and Wolcott, by contrast, think that Yale doesn’t put nearly enough emphasis on technology.

“You just kind of have to pick up computer skills as you go along; they’re not really taught,” Coleman said. “It hurts in the job market to not have those skills.”



Brain slice of an architect

Mei-Lun Xue’s ’07 first experience in the job market was with a design company in Shanghai last summer. Though she readily admits to having “nowhere near the same level of facility” as her counterparts working toward B.Arch. degrees, her “Yale bias” wants to believe she still has an advantage.

“There is more to architecture than a process,” she said. “It is as important to have a rich background to draw from. The basic process — what you become good at in a B.Arch. program — can be subcontracted out, but a creative person is irreproducible.”

Not only does a liberal arts education make architecture majors better architects, they say; an architecture major makes them better at everything else they do. Chan will be applying to medical school next year. Sassaroli doesn’t rule out going to law school. And Newman-Wise wants to move to Los Angeles and act.

“Yale approaches architecture as a way of thinking,” Harris said. “Aspects of it are quantifiable: How long, how tall, will it fit. But it also reflects the intellectual life of the mind, and this duality makes it a very interesting discipline from a liberal arts point of view.”

In the end, Gans said, Yale offers something of a “section” with regards to architecture. A section, in building lingo, apparently refers to a slice of a building, something akin to a neurosurgeon’s brain slice.

“In that section, you can learn an incredible amount,” Gans said. “But you know that it is not the whole building, and that there are other slices you could take.”



No one is ever finished

The intellectual slices they examine in architecture classes, all of the majors agree, are different in a number of fundamental ways from their other classes.

For one thing, Khorsandi said, an architecture project is never actually finished.

“When you’re writing a paper, you’ll write your 10-12 pages, then hit print and maybe flip on ‘Conan O’Brian’,” he said. “With an architecture project, you’ll get to a stopping point and have to keep rethinking all the steps. No one is ever finished.”

For another, there’s no way to Dean’s Excuse your way out of a final crit if you get food poisoning.

“I’m sure there’s technically a way to do it, but our jurors are like …”

“Flown in from Dubai?” Peter Feigenbaum ’06 interrupts.

“… Well, at least from Manhattan, and so there is no makeup,” Wolcott finishes.

On the flip side, working in the same building as your TA can come in handy.

“Imagine being able to ask your TA a question about your paper at 3 the day it is due,” Coleman said.

The biggest difference between an architecture final project and, say, a history seminar’s 15-pager, is this: “If I spend 24 hours just on polishing a paper, it’d be a goddamn good paper!” Xue said. “That won’t even give me an A here.”



The unattainable A

A’s are remarkably — and, seniors say, unjustly — hard to come by in the architecture major.

“Come midterms week at Yale, everyone’s like ‘I have 109 papers’; ‘Yeah? Well, I have 25 midterms!’” Wolcott said. “But I do put more work in than other people, and the highest grade anyone can get is an A-. All our other grades suffer because we spend all our time here.”

The grading system is especially hard to stomach because it routinely comes with the sort of subjective vitriol that is not common in other majors. Wolcott describes architecture crits as “brutal” — “You had better be strong, because you will be torn apart.” Julie Andress ’07 said that, as with most artistic disciplines, the subjective nature of the architecture major renders the process particularly exasperating.

“If the professor does not agree with your ideas about aesthetics, the major can be frustrating,” Julie Andress ’07 said.

Architecture also tends to leave its students struggling to cover the cost of trips to survey sites and pounds of material needed for each project.

“Regrettably, [the School of Architecture] can’t offer any kind of financial support,” Gruzdys said. “We would love Yale College’s support on that front.”

Yale’s School of Architecture has state-of-the-art facilities, recently renovated and due for another update next year: A woodshop to die for, a waterjet cutter that can slice through two inches of concrete, brand new software. But graduate students, who are, after all, in the premiere graduate architecture program in the country, have first dibs, Xue said.

In the end, Aleksandr Bierig ’06 wrote in an e-mail, the architecture major is neither here nor there with regards to the Yale University framework.

“Not quite in Yale College, not quite in the grad school,” Bierig wrote. “As within the liberal arts education, as in social situations, we fit awkwardly.”



At the end of the night

“This project kind of blows chunks,” Coleman says, attaching a polygonal human figure to a motorcycle in a 3-D computer image of his rest-stop project.

“I would not be able to stay up like this for a paper, though,” Edelman replies.

“But it’s weird telling people, ‘I’m designing a rest stop,’ when they’re like, ‘I’m discussing the paradoxical paradigm of post-structuralist Marxist theory,’” Feigenbaum says, blinking behind thick glasses as the restarting computer screen blinks back.

“Yeah, but they’re regurgitating something someone else did 15 years ago,” Coleman says. “At least we know we’re doing something new.”

No laughter this time.

Comments